Significant Sites?

Fieldwalking groups such as Mesolithic Deeside, here photographed by Ali Cameron, have a real contribution to make with regard to picking up the tiniest signs of life in the past.

I’ve been thinking about the significance of archaeological sites in connection with a project I’m working on just now. I’m concerned in particular with lithic scatter sites: fields, or other areas, where a spread of worked stone is visible on the surface of the ground.

Some lithic scatter sites have many thousands of pieces of worked stone (usually, but not always, flint), but others may have only a few hundred, or even a handful. Some sites cover a wide area, some are smaller, some more concentrated. By classifying the types of worked stone found it is possible to get an idea of the chronological periods represented. The fashion for some things was, thankfully, different in the Mesolithic to the Neolithic and so on. Arrowheads are particularly vulnerable to fashion. The range of pieces can also provide a rough idea of activity: whether there is debris from the manufacture of tools for example, or perhaps mainly points, blades or scrapers left from the completion of some tasks. It is very rough and really, in order to understand any site better, some sort of more invasive archaeology is necessary to investigate the preservation of in situ features and other material. But often the collection and classification of a surface assemblage is the best way to obtain a basic understanding of the archaeology.

What bothers me, however, is how to assess the significance of these places? In the past we have tended to judge them by size and, where present, date. Big sites, with lots of material, would be regarded as more significant than small sites with only a few pieces. Sites with pieces that relate to earlier or less well-known periods also tend to be regarded as significant. But this is all very crude.

For starters, it is patently, only a register of the significance of a site in the present day. We are assessing the significance to modern archaeologists. Is it not, in fact, an unreliable evaluation to base the significance of a site in prehistory on the amount of debris that people left behind? By that measure the most significant places in post-war Britain would be old landfill sites. Weird (or maybe not).

Size may come into it, but it is a complex equation. Occupation sites generally contain a diversity of evidence: traces of shelters, hearths, storage, and waste. Our homes are certainly significant. But are they the most significant places in our lives? What about the wooded hillock a mile away where we know we can always be sure of bagging some game for the pot? What about the crystal-clear waterfall that leads to the burn running past our fields? It ensures life-giving fresh water throughout the year. What about the farm where we grew up, where our sister still lives with her family – we have never returned but it is always in our hearts. How about the tombs of the ancestors? The great oak where everyone congregates when we need to gather? You get my gist. One thing about our 2020 lockdown – it has changed the way we view the places on which we rely. Significance is not stable.

Some archaeologists are lucky. They have records, or even informants, to discuss the way in which the landscape worked for other communities. Opportunities like this open up new worlds, new interpretations. But they don’t exist for those of us concerned with the early Prehistory of Europe. The life of an archaeologist is devoted to interpreting other communities, but, of necessity, our first-hand experience is always limited to ourselves.

It occurs to me that we are wrong to dismiss the teeny-weeny lithic scatters as insignificant. We cannot ever know. While archaeologists focus on definable sites, the people of the past did not operate in discrete boxes; their behaviour took place across the landscape. There is, thus, a geographic gradation of detritus relating to any activity or life. Centres, known as sites, are likely to contain the highest density of detritus (in this case lithic assemblages), but it is unlikely to stop completely between centres. In order to understand human behaviour, therefore, it is important to record and investigate the less prolific areas of lithic material as well as the higher density spreads. This has long been an issue for archaeologists, and it is, of course, complicated by the geomorphological and other taphonomic processes that also impact on archaeological survival. Foley considered it, very eloquently, in 1978. Archaeology focusses on clearly defined sites with large numbers of finds, but those with fewer finds are likely to be just as interesting (and significant) in terms of ancient human behaviour. How to investigate and interpret the less clearly defined site, where a handful of lithics may be the only indication of prehistoric activity, is more of a problem, but we can, at least, record them and make a start.

Higher density sites may be significant in terms of archaeological resource and past human behaviour, but it is perhaps through examination of lower density sites that archaeological fieldwalking really comes into its own. In this way it offers a real contribution towards interpretation of the behaviour of the prehistoric communities. These are the places through which people passed: the routeways, overnight stops, hunting blinds, kill-site butchery areas, all the little everyday places that completed the web of human activity.

Without the small, and apparently insignificant, as well as the large, our archaeologies will always be incomplete.

Scatter sites: more than meets the eye

Mesolithic Deeside.
This evocative image by Ali Cameron gives a good idea of the joys of fieldwalking. It is all about finding flints, usually in the rain! Mesolithic Deeside members at work fieldwalking the prolific sites along the River Dee in Aberdeenshire.

I’ve been thinking about lithic scatters a lot recently. For the uninitiated a lithic scatter is a collection of stone tools. They tend to be found on the ground surface, usually across the surface of a ploughed field, but they may also occur in other Continue reading Scatter sites: more than meets the eye

Old Collections

Some of the stone tools collected by Dr Grieve. They are not all quite as interesting as this, but it will be fascinating to see what is in the collection. The finger ring is there for scale!

With the help of some generous funding from various research grants (Society of Antiquaries of London, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Marc Fitch Fund and Aberdeenshire Council) I have recently embarked on an exciting new project. Continue reading Old Collections

Searching for the Scottish Late Upper Palaeolithic

Intrigued by the emerging evidence for Late Upper Palaeolithic activity in Scotland, Torben Bjarke Ballin and I have put together a short paper which was published earlier this week in the Journal of Lithic Studies. We are particularly Continue reading Searching for the Scottish Late Upper Palaeolithic

Timedepth in the Landscape

Midhowe area, Rousay
This shot of the island of Rousay encompasses remains from the Neolithic onwards, but where are the hunter-gatherer sites?

In the past (less so today), I was often approached by anxious parents, wondering about their child’s choice of archaeology as a subject for university study. One of my points was that, whatever your ultimate career, a degree in archaeology would enrich you for life. Not only were there all the usual platitudes about learning, thinking and research; more important was the point that, once you had studied archaeology, a walk in the countryside would never be the same again. And walking in the countryside is popular for many reasons.

It never ceases to amaze me how much there is to see in a piece of land once you have got your eye in. This point was admirably made by Dan Lee of the Archaeology Institute at UHI in Orkney recently when he led a group of us round the cleared community of Quandale on Rousay which he has been studying for a while now. There was just so much to see in the landscape: ruined steadings; burnt mounds; field dykes; barrows; tombs. The remains spanned at least four thousand years and spoke of the human condition: survival; success; tragedy; expansion; eviction; farming; life and death. Over the years, archaeology has made my countryside exploration so much more meaningful.

But there is a problem with this. When we focus on the remains that we can see, we recognise the traces of many, many past generations, but equally, we ignore the traces of many others. Prior to the mid fourth millennium BC most communities left no upstanding footprint to mark their passing. And Scotland has been inhabited since at least the tenth millennium, probably before.

The hunter-gatherers who inhabited the land before the advent of farming were just as significant as those who came after. But their traces are harder to find. They may be buried under peat, or subsumed below more recent remains. They are rarely obvious on the surface. For a discussion of this, have a read of the fieldwork section of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Report in ScARF. All too often we ignore the problem of finding these early sites, but by doing so we are in danger of losing an important part of our past.

Even where we do locate early material, it can be hard to deal with it effectively. We have a good management system for archaeology in Scotland based upon the work of two groups: Historic Environment Scotland (recently cut free from the Scottish Government, but still obliged to undertake statutory work); and Local Authority Archaeologists (whose knowledge of a region or country is rarely beaten). Yet this system is designed to look after upstanding, built features. Houses, tombs, roadways, earthworks: if people have made them we can protect and record them. But the hunters who lived here thousands of years ago rarely left upstanding monuments. They had a more subtle approach to altering the earth. Their mark is left in hearths, postholes, and flints. Especially flints, lots of flints.

When we find flints (or any other lithic tools), it can be harder to know what to do with them.  Statutory protection such as scheduling, is more difficult to enforce for a lithic scatter. At the time of writing it has never been done. It would be nice to see this situation remedied as a starter action by the new heritage body Historic Environment Scotland; it would enable it to make a significant mark on the legacy of good heritage protection and management that it has inherited from its predecessors. It would show that it is set to move things forward.

For the rest of us, we need to broaden the scope of our eye when we are out in the landscape. As long as we mentally prioritize the remains that lie above the ground we are missing the full extent of the richness and depth that lies around us. It is possible to develop a ‘Mesolithic eye’ and see the landscape through a reverse filter that restores an ancient topography. I’d love this to become as natural as the desire to see the remains of Medieval settlement or Neolithic ceremony.